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Low Budget Legends

Joe Dante Interview Part 1

What can you say about Joe Dante that has not been said already? Director of The Howling, Gremlins, as well as Amazon Women on the Moon, Joe has been making great films for the last 40 years. When Joe speaks about filmmaking we sit as his feet and listen.


13BIT:
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
JOE DANTE:
Well, I was a terrific film fan when I was a kid. I practically lived at the movies. And so I’ve had — I guess, I didn’t realize it, but I was storing up a whole lot of film knowledge in my head. And I — I wanted to be a cartoonist. went to art school and discovered that cartooning was not an art and that if I wanted to stay in school, I’d better take something else. So, I took film. And, you know, it’s almost related to cartoons in that there are storyboards and frames and shots and things. And I sort of drifted into it, because I didn’t really expect to be a filmmaker. But I had an opportunity to come out to California and work for Roger Corman, making trailers. And that led to a chance to direct my first movie, which is an entree that I’m afraid is denied to most people today.
13BIT:
It’s funny that you say that. Well, another person we’ve been speaking with, a friend of ours, Nina Paley, is — was a cartoonist and then she became a filmmaker. And now she wants to go back to cartooning.
JOE DANTE:
Yes. No, I can understand that. There might be a little more future in cartooning than there is in filmmaking.
13BIT:
Yes. I don’t know. I think — you know, she had massive problems with rights. She used some music without rights, and she — but we’ve also been trying to get a hold of Corman as well to write on our Low Budget Legends
JOE DANTE:
No, he’s definitely one.
13BIT:
Why do you think there’s going to be more of a future in cartooning?
JOE DANTE:
Well, I just — I think the — that movies are changing. I mean, movies as we understood them are a 20th Century art form. And the 20th Century is over. It is now turning into something else. As far as where the movies are distributed and who they’re made for and who they’re made by — that’s all undergoing a tremendous change, partly because of the new technologies available to make films, but also the technologies available to show them.

And, you know, whereas when I was starting out, my advice to a kid would be “Get yourself an eight millimeter camera and, you know, make some eight millimeter films,” now you can make with a videocamera some pretty good-looking movies. And you can finish them to a point where we were never able to do with film because you can do it on the computer. Coppola once said that he thought the future belonged to those who were going to make their own movies. I think that’s true to a degree, because you can actually make — if you can afford to pay for it, you can make a feature film without the help of the system. The problem is that once you’ve made it, you have to get someone to watch it. And that becomes the difficulty because there are so many things available, so many channels, so many different pieces of material to look at, that to break out of a pack is very difficult. And that’s what film festivals are for. The film festivals used to be just sort of to appreciate film. But now they actually perform a needed function of spotlighting movies that people wouldn’t ordinarily know exist.
13BIT:
That’s exactly the position we’re in. It’s funny you should say — I mean, because we make movies now and we couldn’t do it with film. Yes, no. It’s — so, how much did it cost to make your first movie?
JOE DANTE:
Well, the first movie that I made for Roger Corman cost $60,000. And the only reason it got made was because me and a couple of other people who worked there were chafing at the bit to direct a movie. And we weren’t satisfied with just doing the trailers. So, we — on a bet, basically, we said that we would make a picture — we could do it in ten days and we could do it for $60,000 and it would be a releasable movie.

The reason was that we were familiar with all the action scenes from previous movies that were made by the company, and we wrote out script around those. And we made it about a movie company making those kind of movies. So, we dressed our actors the way the actors in the clips were dressed. And we cobbled together this comedy together about making movies, which, when you look at it today is actually almost a newsreel of the way pictures were really made — on the low budget level in the ’70s.

13BIT:
Wow. What movie was that?
JOE DANTE:
It was called Hollywood Boulevard. And it’s actually out on DVD.
13BIT:
Unbelievable.
JOE DANTE:
It’s very instructive. It’s like a little time capsule.
13BIT:
What was your biggest line item?
JOE DANTE:
For that picture?
13BIT:
Yes.
JOE DANTE:
Well, it certainly wasn’t the cast. And it certainly wasn’t me. I would say it was probably the lab costs. Because we were using clips from other movies. And, you know, it costs a certain amount of money just to assemble the crew in the parking lot every morning no matter what you do. But if you get it — if it’s done low enough — and these are all non-union films, so there was no — you know, no level that we had to reach as far as people’s salaries — I would say that the lab costs and just the rental of the cameras and stuff like that.
13BIT:
These days — people think you can’t make a movie for $60,000 these days.
JOE DANTE:
Well, I mean, admittedly, they — you know, the dollar bought more in 1976 than it does now.
13BIT:
True.
JOE DANTE:
So, I — but I — you can make a movie for $60,000, I think, if you don’t pay people and if — you know, if you defer everything and especially if you can get the — you know, the editor to defer costs and, you know, the — your hard drives and all that kind of stuff. It’s just that when you’re done, what do you do with it, even if it’s a clever comedy?

Because comedies are very cheap to do. And — because all you have to do is make them laugh. It’s not that easy to make them laugh, but it — you know, you don’t have to have things blowing up. But then you’re stuck with the problem of, “Okay, I’ve got this comedy” but now you’re yelling in the wilderness and I’ve got this comedy. And what is the reason — the compelling reason for people to check it out and see whether it’s any good or not?
13BIT:
Distribution is the key these days for low-budget films. I mean —
JOE DANTE:
Well, and also you’re competing in ways that — you know, when I started, you didn’t have all that many different things for people to do. You know, there was television and there was the movies and there was the radio and records. And but now, there’s all these ancillary things — videogames and, you know, — all these technological things that come up that are — give people something else to do other than watch movies.

And even when they watch things on their computer, they don’t necessarily watch a movie because a movie takes some concentration. They like — they’ve got — you know, the MTV generation has been clicking channels for years. And their attention spans are quite small. And so to get somebody to stare at their computer screen for 90 minutes as opposed to — and watch just one thing — as opposed to clicking around and sort of looking at different sites and changing channels, it’s not easy.

When you look at the stats for websites, people tend to stay for less than 30 seconds on any site that they go to. And that translates into, you know, sort of an ADD that they get when they’re watching movies. And when you’re stuck in a theatre and you’re watching a movie, that’s one thing.

But when you can move around and you’re at home and you can, you know, feed the cat and, do all the things that people do — vacuum while they’re doing things — it’s extremely difficult to get people to plunk down and say, “Okay, I’m going to devote the next hour and a half of myself to this unknown movie made by these people, I don’t know who they are.”
13BIT:
No, it’s true. I mean, the short form is looking more popular these days and —
JOE DANTE:
Yes. Yes.
13BIT:
That’s depressing.
13BIT:
It is depressing.
JOE DANTE:
You know, I — because people always — people talk to me and I talk about the movie business. And they always come away feeling depressed. It’s not necessarily depressing. It’s just, you have to approach it with a different mindset. You have to be open to what the entertainment business is becoming as opposed to what it used to be.

Because it isn’t what it used to be and it never will be again. It’s all evolving. And the trick is to try to get on the track of things that are happening that are new and cutting-edge. Like, for instance, webisodes are something that people can easily digest. And they’re free to watch on the net usually. Now, the problem with the internet is, you know, let’s say you even have a popular webisode, how do you make money with it?
13BIT:
Yes.
JOE DANTE:
You know, you could get old, people. “Why people love that webisode. But, you know, they didn’t buy anything.” They didn’t — even if there were commercials were in it, it didn’t mean that they, you know, actually went out and bought any of that stuff. So, people — advertisers are very shy about, you know, putting stuff on the internet because they don’t see results right away. But at least with television, there was, like, the idea that you’re watching or hitting so many people at one time with your commercial that you can charge zillions of dollars if it’s the Super Bowl or something that hundreds of people or thousands of people are going to watch.

But you don’t know how many people are watching on the internet. And so there’s been a reluctance of advertisers to get fully committed to internet stuff. Now that’s probably going to change. But we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the internet. We don’t know whether there’s going to be fair use and if it’s going to be free, or is it going to be regulated? Or, you know, it’s all — this — it’s all unsettled.

And that goes from the internet all the way up to the movie studios. And that’s why people just sort of don’t know what’s coming. And they’re very conservative about everything. Look at the movies that get made. They’re either hugely expensive or they’re tiny budgets. You know, the middle-range movie that we all lived with for years is basically gone. It’s gone to cable television.
13BIT:
Except if you were looking at the glass half full, you could say it’s a time of opportunities.

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